* * * * *
What can be said about David Lynch and his movies that hasn’t already been said many times over? Likely not much, but that’s not stopping me : ) I was a certifiable Lynch fanatic during High School and college, and have seen Mulholland Drive (2001) a number of times over the years. While my initial obsession with Lynch and his films has waned over time, what keeps me coming back to his work is his unique approach to filmmaking and his uncompromising, singular dream visions that can both disarm and transport us to worlds we could scarcely have imagined. Lynch’s films typically favor sound and vision over story, suggestions and clues over plot. And knowing that, you basically know whether you’re going to be a fan or not. Mulholland Drive is one of his best films, in my opinion (and not just mine; it was nominated for oodles of awards, earned Lynch the Best Director at Cannes, was named “greatest film of the 21st century” by a 2016 BBC poll, and even won the praise of long time Lynch critic, Roger Ebert). It contains many of Lynch’s favorite story elements – an examination of a dark underworld in society; a portrayal of a dangerous, forbidden romance – while also offering a biting, outlandish and amusing satire of Hollywood. The film contains some of Lynch’s most inventive and unflinchingly intense images since he first blew our collective minds with Eraserhead (1977). And forgetting about Lynch for a second, Naomi Watts is incredible in this demanding and expansive role. Do you need more reasons to watch this movie?
In the spirit of Lynch, I will say very little here about the “plot” of the film. There are basically two main stories going on, which intersect at varying points, and then kind of explode into textbook Lynchian surrealist inscrutability in the latter half of the film. There is the story of Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring). Betty is an aspiring actress from Canada who is staying temporarily in her Aunt’s apartment in Hollywood. She meets Rita, who has stumbled into the apartment following a car accident that leaves her with amnesia. Their story involves a love affair and some conflict later on as we go deeper into the alternative universe of the film’s final act. The other main story is that of director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who is filming a movie called The Sylvia North Story and is beset on all sides by forbidding and confounding elements trying to take over his film. There are a lot of other memorable bits and pieces in the background and periphery of these main stories that kind of flesh out the underworld and dreamscape of the film.
Mulholland Drive features a well-chosen cast, with Watts, Harring and Theroux all delivering solid performances. Naomi Watts steals the show. Her role is in fact a number of roles. Early in the film, she is a naïve childlike character awed by Hollywood and the possibility of stardom. Later on, she becomes a thoroughly morose, vindictive and desperate woman, driven by jealousy and anger. Watts communicates all of these emotions and identities with ease. Harring is also given a number of roles within the film and pulls them off quite well. She is particularly effective at portraying the Rita of the film’s first half, the mysterious woman who finds herself, quite unawares, at the center of a bizarre and dangerous plot. Theroux is the hapless director who can’t seem to figure out what’s happening and why people are taking over his movie. He is Chaplin-esque in a hilarious scene when he comes home to find his wife cheating on him with the pool guy. In other scenes, he is determined to face the dark mysteries around him, and wrest back control of his film. I think this character is at least in part informed by Lynch himself, who I’m sure has had many battles with producers and executives over the years for creative control of his films (he famously lost one of these battles when making Dune). Angelo Badalamenti, longtime Lynch composer, turns in a memorable performance as one of the mysterious men who barge in on Kesher’s picture. His acting is so convincing it doesn’t feel like a cameo at all, and the scene that features him is actually one of the funniest moments in the film.
As mentioned above, the main draw for a Lynch film is the aesthetic of the picture – the visual style and the soundscape that come together to create a unique world. As a painter, Lynch has a keen eye for color, shadow, and composition. Mulholland Drive offers a bounty of visually stunning images. There is great use of light and shadow, creative framing, and manipulation of focus, all effective at creating the overall mood of the film and getting us more in tune with a given character’s perspective and experience. The special effects are refreshingly DIY, seeming like home-made bits of magic that lend the film a wonderfully personal and organic quality. The bravura set pieces in the film are true Lynchian masterstrokes – the final scene in particular is just short of completely overwhelming (in a good way). In line with these other visual elements is the production design, which is always a key element in Lynch films. Anyone who’s seen Twin Peaks (1990-1991) knows how important the look of the “Red Room” is to the overall feel of that series. In Mulholland Drive, there are a number of truly odd and confounding spaces that add an interesting layer to the narrative and, through watching the characters inhabit and respond to these spaces, impact our overall understanding of the film’s logic and story. One of the most striking spaces in the film is “Club Silencio,” a club that Betty and Rita visit after it appears in Rita’s dream. There is a performer in the club who delivers a monologue and various demonstrations illustrating that “there is no band” and that everything is an “illusion”. One demonstration involves a woman singing Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish; this is another great use of Orbison for Lynch, who, in Blue Velvet (1986), managed to turn Orbison’s “In Dreams” into something much more sinister than was initially intended. From the view of Betty and Rita, the woman on stage signing the song looks completely different from the woman that we, the film’s audience, see in close up. This theme of illusions and things not being what they seem dovetails nicely with the overall critique of Hollywood and the film industry itself; so much to say, Lynch is not a romantic about Hollywood.
Another stylistic element, key to the film’s success, is Lynch’s clever use of repetition; how various images and locations re-appear, with different characters inhabiting them, or the same characters in different personas. This technique really gets our neurons firing and makes us question all of the little details. After the credits roll, we are anxiously running through the possibilities in our brain trying to piece the disparate elements together, precisely because the breadcrumbs were dropped so strategically throughout the film. The best example of this skillful repetition is a diner that is depicted at various moments in the film. Lynch has said that, at least at one point in his career, he would often go to diners, drink coffee and come up with ideas for projects. It seems like he’s honoring that spirit in Mulholland Drive, wherein the Winkie’s Diner depicted in the film is a place of dreams and revelations: it is in this space that one character recounts a dream / nightmare, others make key discoveries and decisions, and we the audience, when viewing the diner scenes, are often made to question whether or not we are dreaming.
As much of a student of visual art as Lynch is, he is also clearly obsessed with sound (even going so far as to pursue a kind of music career, releasing three albums of original music so far). Sound design takes on a prominent role in Mulholland Drive, where it acts as an independent, creative force, driving the narrative and feel of the film in various scenes. The score from Badalamenti is typically atmospheric and delightfully weird. Badalamenti and Lynch’s creative collaboration is one that has truly paid off time and time again. It’s hard to imagine many of Lynch’s films working without their spiritual, sonic core informing and building off of the bizarre images on the screen.
If you want an introduction to David Lynch’s films and are looking for something a little more contemporary than his undeniable 1986 classic Blue Velvet, or something a little more accessible than his thrillingly experimental, albeit claustrophobic, dark, and dense 1977 debut feature, Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive is a good choice. You get a lot of classic Lynch elements, presented in a fresh and relatively digestible manner, with the added bonus of a career best performance from Naomi Watts. I will just reiterate the warning that this is not a movie for everyone. If you like a movie that takes you by the hand on a familiar journey toward a clear destination, I would skip this one. But if you enjoy the ride itself, and the feeling of being thrown into an unknown space, left to simmer in a mystery and fill in the blanks on your own time, then this is just the rabbit hole for you.